Till money do us part
Milani's film bares love & marriage

By Poopak Taati
March 18, 2003
The Iranian

The Hidden Half,
a film by Tahmineh Milani, is a strikingly realistic picture of the best and worst of Iranian culture as it pertains to love and marriage. It challenges the naive perspective that financially secure and dutiful relationships are sources of happiness.

Milani portrays how the private sphere can be as repressive as the public sphere when men and women are not free to express their inner feelings, execute their choices, and be true to themselves. Certainly, society and culture play the most important role in what people say and do, and how they interpret expressions and actions.

The Hidden Half is the story of a 40-year-young woman who comes to reflect on a love relationship she let go 20 years before. She had done so primarily due to the untrue words of a woman whose intentions she had not suspected. She should not have judged Roozbeh without giving him the full chance of presenting himself -- wisdom that she appreciated only after many painful, long, and lonely years.

As a revolutionary young girl, Freshteh had fallen in love with the unconventional editor of a cultural journal and publishing company. Being a revolutionary while in love -- as unacceptable as it seemed in the context of Iranian society after the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 -- was a struggle she could not resist.

Freshteh was in love with a charming writer, but also in love with the idea of bringing class equality to her society. Both of these love affairs were reflections of her idealistic persona and passion for life. Alas, she would question and eventually abandon her idealism and zest for life, once she had learned leftist ideals were too repressive for her free-spirited character, and the man she loved, was married with a son.

The film reveals a heartbreaking love story where two souls lived incomplete lives separated from their own very halves. Why? One would and should reflect on the answer to this question. Was it because Shafee, Roozbeh's wife, was able to successfully execute her Machiavellian plan?

Was it because Roozbeh had assumed a love relationship would work itself out mysteriously without direct and honest communication? Was it because Freshteh was a good and proper woman not wanting to cause pain to another woman or disrupt a social norm? Or was it because Freshteh had allowed a seemingly helpless wife to manipulate her judgments about the man she had loved?

Freshteh was not the first or the only victim of Shafee's ill character. A bright young communist in the 1950s, Roozbeh was first engaged and deeply in love with Mahmonir, the vibrant and radical cousin of then young Shafee. Shafee could not see her cousin Mahmonir, marry a man more appropriate for herself. She believed Mahmonir deserved less. After all, she had taken refuge in her father's house. Shafee decided to eliminate this cousin, once opportunities presented themselves during a day of political unrest in Tehran in 1953.

Only a year after, Shafee was conveniently married to Roozbeh, who by now had no hope of ever finding a trace of Mahmonir. The marriage happened at the request of the father. Roozbeh agreed. He wanted to live in an atmosphere of which Mahmonir was a part, but perhaps also because this marriage was financially and socially promising.

Hardly a man suited for a marriage of convenience, Roozbeh did not commit himself. He found temporary pleasures in superficial relationships with many women who came his way. He was escaping himself. Shafee knew well about these affairs, although she did not protest. She knew her husband did not love her.

Roozbeh lived a physically separate, and emotionally distant, life. Was it because he could detect Shafee's poor character and spirit? But, he also respected her and treated her with consideration. Did he pity her? Or was this in exchange for the financial rewards her father had generously offered? We don't know the answer.

Roozbeh was too proud or too insecure to reveal his true feelings. He was also too poetic or too passive to tackle practical matters of life. Did he expect things happen to him and for him? Did he think someone had to rescue him? These attitudes were exactly what Shafee had noticed in him and exploited to her advantage.

The Hidden Half was all the more powerful for making the audience believe as much as did Freshteh, that Shafee was an innocently unattractive and helplessly handicapped woman wishing to keep her family together. Who could not sympathize with this woman? Who could suspect her for being anyone other than a concerned wife?

Freshteh left the extra-marital relationship, holding to the promise she had given to Shafee. Could she be blamed for her naivety in becoming a victim of Shafee's cunning? Was she intimidated by her power and money? Was she afraid that the break up of an important social norm would break her too? Whatever the reasons, she had to take one responsibility and that was for not telling Roozbeh what she had learned about him and for judging him before fully hearing his side of the story.

Of course, Roozbeh was in part responsible for ending the love relationship, even though he never came to grasp this. Well aware of his wife's wicked character, as evidenced by his desire to protect Freshteh and send her to London, once he heard that Freshteh was determined to leave him, he said nothing to dispel her misperceptions and did little to reverse her decision. He passively accepted the "elimination" of Freshteh as another work of his destiny. Did he find it easier to continue with an unfulfilled life instead of choosing a life of passion and fulfillments? Was he as "passive" as Shafee had claimed?

As if to say "love is ultimately doomed to failure," and every wise man should know this better, Roozbeh's lack of actions personified a culture that perpetuates separation of romantic love and marital relationship. "Marriage kills a love relationship," "Love is based on emotions and marriage on reason." Roozbeh's actions reflected these cultural myths, proving that he was a traditionalist in matters of the heart, if not in social engagements.

Freshteh, a few years after leaving Roozbeh, had married Khosrow, a man seen by society as an ideal husband. He was kind, faithful, and a good provider. "Truly blessed she was," people in the audience believed. But, no matter how good Khosrow was, how could anyone decide that Freshteh was happy? Fulfilled? Inspired? Unable to express herself and feel understood, the silence she had felt throughout her marriage, could not be the envy to anyone, I thought.

It must have felt terribly devastating to live a life of duality, when one's body is separated from one's mind, soul, and heart. Khosrow had never asked about or never noticed this duality in his wife. He was not a man who had thought feelings were important at all. Was Khosrow really as kind, generous, and considerate as the movie had portrayed him? If so, I must have a complete misunderstanding of these attributes.

In taking Freshteh as a wife, providing for her, but dismissing her feelings, Khosrow had shared if not all, but at least some of Shafee's selfishness. She too was oblivious of Roozbeh's longings. Both were happy to have marriages that looked good to the outside world, regardless of how miserable their partners were internally.

When 20 years after, Freshteh saw Roozbeh at a funeral, it was clear that neither had lost the feelings they had for one another -- a measure of real love, when it grows even against all the odds. This was a man who had intrigued her years ago and was the only one with whom she had felt the freedom of being herself. He was still her only true love.

Instead of accepting her life passively, as Roozbeh had done, Freshteh decided to make a difference. Now that she knew the truth, she did not resist her love. She decided to use a legal case of her husband's and express her inner feelings to him as the example of a woman he should not misjudge.

As it was the most appropriate for a woman like her, she told Khosrow about her own misjudgments of Roozbeh. Perhaps because love needed to be expressed or maybe because she was hoping Khosrow could understand her if she were to leave. Whatever the outcome, she was willing to take a risk. She was older, more mature, and sure of herself. Life had become unbearable for her. She could not continue being untrue to herself and to her provider.

The Hidden Half left the audience with many cultural puzzles to put together, some of which engaged me in reflections over and over again in the past two weeks since I first saw the film. With this effect as an important standard of its excellence, I thought Tahmineh Milani's work is worth more attention and further analysis.

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